By Robbie Robinson
Dark green, marbled leather, red bound, the log book sat on the shelf above the port settee. "Feel free to christen it," said the note from Al Johnstone. We were taking the J/32, hull number 1 and Al’s first full-blown design for J/Boats, from Newport, RI to McMichael’s Yacht Yard in Mamaroneck, NY. Like everything else aboard WHISTLER, the book was shiny and new. Somehow I never brought myself to make the first mark on its blank pages. They taught me in nautical scribe school that log style writing did not produce great reading, but WHISTLER and our cruise/delivery aboard her were exceptional enough that maybe I can just tell you what happened and leave it at that.
Sunday---We were planning to come aboard mid-day and get some miles under us so that we might relax a bit along the way to our Thursday-noon delivery deadline for arrival in Mamaroneck. Rain, forty-fifty knot gusts out of the northeast, and the warmth of a homeside fire made us scrub that plan and wait to see what Monday might bring.
Monday—Lowering skies, spits of rain…not much of a sailing day in the remains of the northeaster. We tarried and scurried alternately and arrived in Newport about 1500. After Al checked us out and we stopped for ice and ice cream cones (my crew at the beginning was my 24-year-old daughter Elizabeth), before we were dropped aboard by the Ida Lewis launch. We tried to re-adjust the spring tension in the Quik-Vang as Al had requested, but the vice grips were broken. We shrugged and decided to cast off.
1700—Elizabeth threaded us through the anchorage under main alone toward Fort Adams. While we’d been running around the clouds had broken and we were treated to a low-lit golden harbor exit in lively 15-knot puffs; the northwester had filled in behind the departing storm. Waves were minimal in the protection of the harbor. Rounding close around Fort Adams our only neighbor was a 28-footer, half-a-mile ahead, stemming the current in mid-channel. We hugged the Newport shore to lessen the foul tide. Elizabeth drove while I tried to find a course for Block Island. In two miles or less we put the little boat half-a-mile astern. I told Elizabeth it was the brilliance of staying out of the current.
The "mother-in-law" house, Hammersmith Farm, Castle Hill, I regaled my captive daughter with unwanted details about each, and we were out East Passage. Sliding in relatively smooth water beneath the Rhode Island shore toward Point Judith we held our course, played G-H-O-S-T (a tie), and marvelled at boatspeed numbers around from 8.8 - 9.2. "This 32-footer really IS fast," we thought until we figured out that we were actually looking at the apparent wind reading.
I decoded the instruments before we sighted the flashing green on the bouy off Sandy Point on the top of Block Island. The breeze had dropped to single digits on the quarter. We powered in, picking the buoys out in the moonlight, to tie up at a deserted Champlain’s Dock in Great Salt Pond about 2000.
Tuesday—1000—Taking care of a diesel fill-up and harbor dues (an off-season bargain at $20) we turned left at the harbor mouth bell to make for Long Island Sound. The dying norther on our quarter pushed us at about 5 knots, so we sailed to Watch Hill where it quit. A brief stint under power (6-plus-knots at a conservative 2400 rpm) pointed in behind Fisher’s Island ("to duck the current again, Daddy?" asked Elizabeth with wide eyed sarcasm) and rolled out the jib to meet the new sou’wester. Motorsailing through Wicopesset Passage into Fisher’s Island Sound we encountered three knots of current (but not the 5.2 predicted by Eldridge for the Race). The estates and tidy "garden cottages" rolled by to weather and we threaded inside South Dumpling to leave the island behind an hour and a half later. Elizabeth made roast beef sandwiches on bread spread with dill humus. "Fisher’s Island burgers" we called them.
1500 We had arranged to call Carol (Elizabeth’s mother, my wife) on the radio/tel. To arrange a rendezvous. Making miles toward Mamaroneck was still important, so we told her to meet us at Clinton and hoped we could close the 25 miles still to go before dark. All afternoon while Elizabeth slept under her sleeping bag in the cockpit I fiddled with sail controls and tried to coax Whistler into her on-the-wind best. It was a close fetch along the Connecticut shore, moderate sea, puffs in the teens. With her small cruising jib and jumbo main, the J-32 presented me with an unfamiliar combination.
She balanced up nicely with the wheel brake set, and I walked around trying to maximize the (now reliable knotmeter). The over-tensioned vang spring was a problem, but I got the trim-stripes on the main to smooth out, the leech tell-tales to fly, (with as much backstay tension as I dared apply). The jib was no problem. Even with approximate lead settings it pulled well and broke evenly.
It was heavy dusk under blue-black clouds and spitting rain, but we got to Clinton at 1830, ten minutes before Carol.
1900—"Cruising in the rain. This should be lots of fun." Grimaced Carol as she settled aboard. I nestled in a corner and watched my crew bustle about the galley. Whether it was the elbow room, the efficient stowage, or the thought of cruising with an oven, both seemed to perk up as they worked. Mother-daughter meals aren’t necessarily always elegant, but Carol had picked up lobsters on her way down, and this one was. The ports were steamed and the downpour drummed on the coach while we dipped our claws in the common frypan ("I didn’t bring anything to put the butter in") and wiped our chins.
2130—Elizabeth drove home, and Carol and I settled in. I’d slept in the main cabin, but now Carol and I moved forward. Compared to the other "master" beds of our long-lived marriage, this one rated well toward the top.
We saw what there is to see of Clinton, bought two more bags of ice, paid the $25 for a protected night at the town pier, and were on our way.
1330—Falkner’s Island was in our way. Bear off around it? Pinch up inside it? Neither looked good in the still-kicking sou’wester. Finally I treated the inboard buoy like a weather mark. Short-tacking on the lifts was obscenely easy with the cruising jib, and we made the short course in good time. This boat makes it hard not to do the right thing.
1500---It was a little late for lunch, but we’d been holding off for the Thimble Islands. Main alone took us into the middle of the labyrinth where, touching mud just once, we found a spot to anchor and devour the remains of roast beef…fried up with onions and served on buns warmed in the oven. Carol handled the anchoring with a minimum of the normal frustration. I pulled it easily aboard after lunch and we went on.
1800---Off New Haven we made the choice of Milford as our target. With light waning we powered into a sloppy (wind against the tide) slop. Quickly and dryly we covered the ground into "The Gulf" (that modestly-named bay at the mouth of the Indian River) and slid in the half-light into Milford Harbor and an empty slip.
0500—With 45 miles to go to Mamaroneck and "not later than noon" as our deadline, we left Milford early.
0600---We picked up a fair current. The northwest winds on our quarter were almost strong enough to warrant motorsailing, but we buzzed along under power alone.
0645—I rolled out the jib. It added a quarter knot to the six we were getting at 2600 rpm.
0730—I put up the main. Another quarter knot. With the help from the current we were getting there.
1100---We were abeam of Playland at Rye. Less than five miles and an hour to kill. We put up the cruising chute. By now the breeze was fitful, at best, from the Northwest. We made the rest of the trip in, ten minutes late, to tie up at McMichael’s.
Post script: Dear Al, I guess the worst thing I can say about your boat is that it has a tendency to encourage thoughts like "If I can fly like this, maybe I can walk on water too." With new cruising fantasies fired full blast, the conservative thing for me to do is head back to my catboat. Thanks and congratulations, Robby.